Naked film: stripping with The Idiots.
Article Type:
Movie review
Motion pictures (Movie reviews)
van der Vliet, Emma
Pub Date:
Name: Post Script Publisher: Post Script, Inc. Audience: General; Trade Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Business; Business, international Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2009 Post Script, Inc. ISSN: 0277-9897
Date: Summer, 2009 Source Volume: 28 Source Issue: 3
NamedWork: The Idiots (Motion picture)
Reviewee: von Trier, Lars

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"The illusions are everything the movie can hide behind."

--(from the Dogme 95 manifesto)

On the afternoon of the 20th of March 1995 at the Odeon Theatre in Paris a directors' symposium was held to mark the centennial of film and to discuss its future. When it came to Danish film director Lars von Trier's turn to speak, he announced that he represented the group Dogme 95 and, in a dramatic agitprop gesture, threw a handful of red leaflets bearing the Dogme manifesto off the stage and stalked out of the theatre. (1)

Dogme had begun, and the manifesto, written by two of the Dogme "brothers," Lars von Trier and the younger Danish director Thomas Vinterberg (a graduate of the same film school as von Trier), quickly made its mark.

"Dogme 95 is a rescue action!" it claimed, with the "express goal of countering 'certain tendencies' in the cinema today." Film had become cosmetic, illusionistic, and overly-reliant on expensive special effects, and Dogme was invented to combat this. To this effect, a list of ten rules was developed which challenged filmmakers to shoot with natural lighting only, using hand-held cameras, in natural locations and "found" props, and without the benefit of post-production polishing or the addition of sound or music not recorded on location. (2)

The aim, as Vinterberg said on the official Dogme website, was to "undress film, to reach the 'naked film'" (n.p.). Deprived of their customary box of tricks, film-makers would presumably be thrown back upon their own (and their actors') resources and forced to go back to the basics: story (or more appropriately scenario, since traditional dramaturgy is eschewed), (3) setting and performance.

Lars von Trier's provocative and controversial Dogme film, The Idiots, was finally released in 1998, three years after the manifesto was written. Although it purports to be a film about a group of young people searching for their inner idiot by "spassing" (acting mentally disabled), The Idiots is actually more a film about film-making and about the Dogme project itself. "If I have to describe the real aim of the project, it is a sort of search for authenticity," Von Trier remarks in the Intimate Journal which he dictated throughout the making of the film (46). (4) The Idiots is a relentlessly reflexive film, deconstructing itself even as it is constructed. The film is merciless in its scrutiny of the Dogme ideals, of the titular idiots whose antics it "documents," of the actors who play those roles (the distinction between actor and character is deliberately unclear), and most cruelly of von Trier himself as an individual and as a director. Von Trier, his actors, and the characters they portray are stripped naked (figuratively and literally), ruthlessly exposed in the unlovely natural light and the results are "captured" on stark, unfiltered video. It is a fascinating, surgical, laboratory experiment, painful and extraordinary to watch. It is rawer than naked: this is a vivisection.

Technically and aesthetically the The Idiots could not be truer to the ideals expressed in the Dogme manifesto. The film's realism consists of a constant process of baring at every level. The film is raw, rough, and deprived of any of the cosmetic tricks that might take the edge off the unfiltered, handheld video images. Sound is limited to natural on-location audio, and editing is typically harsh and abrupt. The Dogme rules explicitly prohibit any cosmetic finishing in post production (the manifesto states that "optical work and filters are forbidden") and it also prohibits the addition of non-diegetic sound in post-production ("sound must never be produced apart from the images or vice versa" and music "must not be used unless it occurs where the camera is standing; shooting must take place where the film takes place.") This prohibition applies both to sound effects and to what French filmmaker and father of Jean Rouch referred to almost half a century before as the "musical sauce" so frequently and insistently used in both fiction and documentary film (94). The only music in The Idiots, effective by the sparseness with which it is used and by its simplicity, is The Swan by Camille Saint-Saens, which is being played on the melodica (apparently off-camera) at the beginning of the film as Karen rides on the wagon, and is reiterated sparingly elsewhere in the film. Otherwise, there is no music to hide behind.

Von Trier himself did "about ninety per cent" of the camerawork (Bjorkman Trier on Von Trier 214). He claimed that he was not composing the shots but "seeking out content" and "pointing" at it with the camera (Jerslev 49), in keeping with the Dogme specification that "the film must not take place where the camera is standing; shooting must take place where the film takes place." Von Trier claimed that "[w]hen you construct an image you are actually going for control. But you must ignore that for a moment and try to put yourself into the frame and find out what's inside, what's in the middle. Then you just point in that direction because then it comes to you" (Jerslev 49). But this belies the sense of anxiety of von Trier's "truth-seeking" camerawork. This is not a clinical, detached observing eye at work. The camerawork, whether Von Trier is filming himself or directing DoP Kristoffer Nyholm, is insistent, invasive and frantic. He gets closer than is comfortable for the audience to watch (or, one imagines, for the actors) and he is no enemy of the zoom-button or of the intrusive rather than empathic close-up. "It was great, really wonderful," he told Bjorkman. "It's the best way to make a film. Especially in this case, where the camera is inquisitive, invasive" (Trier on Von Trier 214). Whereas Rouch was adamantly against the use of zooms in his ethnographic documentaries because of their intrusive nature, von Trier has no such scruples. Lizzie Francke's review of von Trier's 1996 Breaking the Waves points to a similar tendency and her description of the Director of Photography's shooting style could well be applied to The Idiots:


Von Trier's camera direction is likened to a hunt. The camera "circles, pierces and burrows." It is "alive" and it knows its own "power." In The Idiots too, naked is not enough: von Trier "seek[s] out content" and subjects that content to such intense scrutiny that at rimes he does seem to get beneath the skin.

While there are clearly strong similarities to the cinema verite approach, the style in The Idiots is closer in many ways to that more contemporary take on verite, reality-TV, and in particular to Big Brother. Essentially, the television series is based on a similar premise: a commune of willing captives allowing themselves to be subjected to constant surveillance and intense scrutiny by numerous cameras and a voyeuristic audience, and (purportedly, anyway, in the case of Big Brother) offering themselves up as the subject of research in a grand social experiment. Von Trier would have taken the similarities further by making his cast actually live together in the house during the shooting, but they refused. Stylistically, both productions make similar claims to realism through the use of conventional indicators of authenticity, the most obvious being the apparently amateur or documentary "'shaky camera' footage and the visibility of the cinematic apparatus onscreen" (Crago 110). In both cases, cameras follow the action and, as Peter Keighron writes, "the fly is off the wall; the camera need no longer pretend to be a passive observer, but can accept the role of participant" (Crago 112). Even the competition element is a factor in both Big Brother and The Idiots, the difference being that while the Big Brother contestants compete to avoid eviction in their quest for the prize money, the only prize the idiots seem to battle for is Stoffer's approval of their spassing. (5) When Axel and Henrik realise they have failed to live up to Stoffer's expectations, they fall on their swords and evict themselves from the house.

In discussing the inclusion of the cinematic apparatus on screen in reality-TV, Crago suggests that "[j]ust as television audiences have learned to understand generic conventions such as mobile or handheld camera work as indicators of reality, it seems possible that series such as Big Brother are assisting in the development of new interpretive frameworks that allow the presence of the cinematic apparatus on-screen to function similarly" (112). But this is by no means a new way of signifying authenticity. Brian Winston has noted that cinema verite practioners were at pains to show the process of construction in their films, and to include the filmmakers themselves as well, in the belief that their audience would believe the "truth" of their work because they could "observe them apparently in the act of observing" (Crago 113). This technique can be, and increasingly commonly is, used in conjunction with deliberately unmediated-looking images and imperfect audio in order to create an impression of transparency and authenticity.

Peter Humm suggests screening the 'workings' of filming in this way is a "rhetorical trick; television's equivalent of abandoning the written text to demonstrate that this rime the speech is from the heart, not the autocue." Furthermore, Humm points out, this "clumsiness is a ploy designed to prove that what we are about to hear and see is real, authentic, unmediated by what professionals call over-fondly 'the magic of television'" (Crago 113). Certainly there is a kind of artful artlessness in this approach, but this is something that works in von Trier's favour in The Idiots and which naturally forms part of a realism based on nakedness. Not only does he strip the stylistic elements bare, he exposes the workings of the production process itself. But von Trier presumes a sophisticated audience. Far from expecting us to believe what we see, he creates a sea of treacherous and constantly shifting layers of reality and un-reality which we must negotiate in order to find our own "truth" in the text. We are deliberately confused as to whether we are seeing the actors or their characters doing the interviews, or as to whether the person crying on screen is Susanne or actually Anne Louise Hassing, a confusion which is compounded by von Trier's controversial re-interpretation of certain method acting techniques which bring a great deal of the actor's own "real" past and feelings to bear on the performance. Despite the realism of the performances, he denies us the possibility of being lulled into a seamless story world from the outset and forces us to be actively engaged as viewers, alert and wary.

Both Big Brother and The Idiots adopt quasi-scientific experiment formats, a tactic which has been seized upon by the directors of a range of realist fictional texts because it confers upon the text all immediate impression of authenticity. The subjects at the core of this experiment, the human "lab rats" (all be they willing ones) around whom the film revolves, are the actors/idiots themselves.

Von Trier has come under fire for The Idiots due to several perceived transgressions. The first is his use of sensationalist graphic sex (including the penetration shot in the gang bang scene); the second is his inclusion of non-actors with Down's syndrome, and the third is his apparent cruelty and misogyny which characterises his relationships with his actors. In defence of his work, he might invoke the Dogme manifesto, which states that the "supreme goal" of any Dogme filmmaker is to "force time truth out of [his or her] characters and settings" and to do so "by all the means available and at the cost of any good taste and any aesthetic considerations" (my emphasis). A cynic might mention that von Trier himself was probably responsible for including this clause within the manifesto, but he certainly follows the manifesto to the letter in The Idiots.


Von Trier strips his actors, in every sense, of their defences in his quest to "force the truth" out of them. All of the characters, with the notable exception of Karen, appear naked in the film, and in compromising positions. The orgy takes place in the harsh natural light in the main room of the house, the actors' pale bodies intertwined and imperfect like a poorly-reproduced Lucian Freud painting. Von Trier was disappointed in his hope that a spontaneous orgy would erupt among the actors, and the most graphic shot of all, the penetration shot, was achieved using stand-ins from the porn industry. One could debate whether or not this constitutes a "cheat" in terms the Dogme manifesto, and it does seem to compromise von Trier's otherwise uncompromising attitude towards realism. For the shower scene, von Trier insisted that Stoffer's erection had to be his own, since the use of a body double would be too obvious without resorting to colour-matching in postproduction. Actor Jens Albinus obediently complied with von Trier's instructions, with some assistance from Susanne (or was it Anne Louise Hassing?) and a great deal of foam: all in the service of realism.

Much has been said about von Trier's prurient interest in sex, and von Trier himself speaks candidly and at length about it in his dictated journal, but for yon Trier the use of explicit sex "serves a higher purpose;" it is "not just to shock the bourgeoisie, but to liberate the self from the strictures of reason and good taste" (Rockwell 58). He denies that the foregrounding of sexuality is "simply infantilism as one might believe," claiming that it is "important because it gives the film a sort of roughness which it needs," as well as the necessary "danger," which suits both the message and the aesthetic (Journal Intime 27). For Von Trier, the penetration shots which he insisted on for the orgy scene gave the film a sense of danger that prevented the audience from distancing themselves, and pushed boundaries in a way that was necessary, for the film (Journal Intime 7).

In order to relinquish some of his control as a director as well as for relaxation purposes and fun (Bjorkman Trier on Von Trier 216-217), von Trier declared certain shooting days as "all-naked days" and stripped down with the rest of the cast, once again exposing himself to the same humiliations as his performers. Von Trier defends this practise as a great leveller, and a useful method for stripping away the defences of everyone involved, saying

... you can keep control of your face; you know which side is best and which angle is most flattering. But you don't have the same control with tits and willies. You just don't have that control when you're naked. You have to give up your vanity one hundred per cent. That's not a bad realisation, and it's something you can make use of when you're making a film, even if the film in question doesn't require any nude scenes. (Bjorkman, Trier on Von Trier 216)

In von Trier's defence, he did also capitulate in several instances where cast members felt nudity or sexuality was unmotivated and gratuitous. Bodil Jorgensen argued that Karen would not participate in the orgy, let alone appear naked and masturbating as was initially described in the script, and von Trier conceded, noting in his Intimate Journal that he couldn't make it "stick" to her character anyway (50). He has Jorgensen, and his own second thoughts, to thank for preventing that from happening, as it would undoubtedly have detracted from the powerful ending; the shock of the emotional nakedness of that final scene has all the more impact because Karen is never physically naked in the film, and because she is a mystery until that moment. (6)

The performances which von Trier ellicits in The Idiots go beyond nakedness. At times, it is as though the actors have been emotionally flayed, and the fact that we are scrutinising them as they experience such disturbingly genuine-seeming awkwardness, anxiety, vulnerability and pain causes us great discomfort. This was undoubtedly von Trier's intention. The intensity and authenticity of the acting is at the core of the particular brand of realism he was striving for, and it was crucial to accomplish this if the film was to have the desired impact on the audience.

Von Trier went to some extremes to ensure that The Idiots would be a "rock in the shoe," which he claims is the proper role of film (Walters 44). The methods he used to "force the truth" out of his actors (and particularly his actresses) have been condemned as sadistic and misogynist. "The very level of extreme emotion he elicits from his actresses has been called erotic," writes John Rockwell, "and even likened to rape--of the characters (as with Bess in Breaking the Waves), of the women who act them, and of the audience that is (von Trier's detractors fear) forced to watch them, to open themselves up to them" (Rockwell 43). The behind-the-scenes documentary about the making of The Idiots, The Humiliated (Jesper Jargil, 1998) features some very unflattering interchanges between the director and his cast. Von Trier used improvisation sessions to bring to life his rapidly written script (the initial draft was written in only a fortnight, a feat which von Trier likened to De Sade's swift penning of Justine while incarcerated in a tower (Knudsen n.p.), but in conjunction with this, he developed an approach using amateur psycho-therapy to dredge up feelings and experiences in the performer's past. Painful experiences in particular were revisited in these "sessions" in order to extract a more convincingly "real" and authentic performance, potentially at great cost to the performers themselves. Von Trier stated that he "didn't want actors playing parts but instead wanted real people experiencing real emotions" (Rockwell 65). Actors had to "live their characters rather than act them" (Bjorkman Trier on Von Trier 208). To accomplish this he also "eagerly exploited every life-art parallel he could uncover" according to Rockwell (45), including the illness of Bodil Jorgensen's young son, whose heart operation resulted in his coming down with a temperature of over 40 degrees on the eve of the crucial alcove scene. Since von Trier had not got the performance he'd wanted from Jorgensen and Hassing in this scene, he decided that since the child was getting better but Jorgensen was still anxious, he would ask her to redo the scene. Hassing too was tearful due to problems in her own private life, so von Trier thought it would be an opportune moment to re-attempt the scene: "Yes, I cynically assumed we'd succeed [in getting the performance]," yon Trier admits in his journal, (7) but the tears that they'd shed with "such abandon" in their private lives never came, despite their lengthy attempt and the fact that von Trier was "almost lashing them" (32-3).

It was an approach that he had been developing over several of his previous works, and which had already caused some controversy. When shooting Epidemic (1986), von Trier hypnotised his main actress, Gitte Lind, into thinking she had the plague so that he could capture her genuine hysteria on film. (8) He cast Emily Watson as Bess in Breaking the Waves despite (or perhaps because) she was a newcomer to film acting. "She had had no earlier film experience," von Trier told Stig Bjorkman shortly after the release of the film, "which means that she was, to a great extent, forced to trust me as a director" (Bjorkman "Naked Miracles" 14).

Until he started his Golden Heart Trilogy in the 1990s (Breaking the Waves, The Idiots and Dancer in the Dark), von Trier had a reputation as a director who was uncomfortable directing actors, and who arrogantly believed that the actor's job was simply to follow the director's instructions. This did not endear him to The Kingdom actress Kirsten Rolffes, who stated in a press conference as late as 1997 that "Lars von Trier cannot direct actors" (Rockwell 56). But after years spent obsessing over technique at the expense of character development, von Trier changed tack and prioritised realism in the performances he directed. Element of Crime (1984), Epidemic (1986) and Europa (1991) were all criticised for their obsession with technique, and the apparent lack of interest in characters. "I had an almost fetishistic attraction to film technology," von Trier told Bjorkman. He was aware of the "limitless possibilities" that the film school's equipment offered and it was "fantastic just to be able to touch all these appliances", but he later "[felt] the need to give [himself] parameters, and it is in that spirit that the manifesto came into being" ("Naked Miracles" 11).

Although this may seem like a major shift in focus, von Trier felt that his core intention, of taking film "... beyond fiction at the moment of shooting," was "something [he'd] aimed for in all [his] films." He claimed that "[w]hat used to happen on the technical side is something I'm trying to transfer to a more psychological level" (Bjorkman Trier on Von Trier 206), and this "transfer" came into being with the start of his Golden Heart trilogy. Von Trier told Stig Bjorkman

I made use of a different technique in Breaking the Waves ... and that technique is based on a relationship of trust between the director and cast, a classic technique. I have probably also come closer to the actors in this film. But this is very easy to state: that now von Trier has learned this technique also! In the earlier films it was a conscious decision not to be too close to the actors. (Bjorkman "Naked Miracles" 14)

This new attitude to directing actors suited the form of narrative structure he now sought out, in which, as Caroline Bainbridge points out "dominant themes encompass emotional trauma, transgression, and, ultimately, transcendence" (118).

The performances that resulted from von Trier's new approach disturbed and astonished audiences and critics. The agonising vulnerability which Emily Watson managed to convey on screen and the intensity of her performance were a realist triumph. As Francke writes:

Although there are clear similarities of style and approach between Breaking the Waves and the Dogme manifesto (published the year before Breaking the Waves was released), von Trier's Dogme film was still to come. Von Trier pushed this directorial approach further with The Idiots, with the manifesto's explicit direction to search for truth "at the cost of any good taste" justifying his increasingly extreme techniques.

The Dogme manifesto called for the director to renounce his or her auteurist stance and necessitated a relationship of complicity and mutual trust with the actors. For his Dogme film, von Trier would set out a situation described in the script and then "allow [actors] to improvise, following them with his camera" (Rockwell 68). The use of video rather than film allowed for long takes and numerous retakes, where each new version of the scene frequently stripped the dialogue to a barer, more realist minimum. It was also easier to "see how it was working ... to follow the development of the characters in a more natural way" and to ensure psychological consistency (Bjorkman Trier on Von Trier 211). Von Trier also introduced non-professional cast members into several scenes in the film in order further to disconcert his performers and to create freer, more authentic interactions. The arrival of the "Mongoloids" for a picnic is the most extreme example, but the old ladies in Hendrik's art class and the biker gang who help Jeppe to urinate fulfil the same traction. These improvisatory tactics led von Trier and the actors away from the script and then largely back to it (Rockwell 49), and helped to crystallise a series of intense moments in a script that was already "realist" in its episodic nature.

This is not a new technique, but it was for the most emotionally raw scenes with Jorgensen and Hassing in particular that von Trier took this technique from complicity to cruelty. The "scenes of naked emotional compassion between Karen and Susanne" (Rockwell 69) underpin the film and form an essential contrast to the relatively frivolous cavortings of the other "idiots." To achieve the desired level of authenticity, von Trier developed a process of emotionally "stripping" the performer to the point where she (since it is most often a "she" who undergoes this treatment in all von Trier's films) is completely exposed and vulnerable.

To unblock Hassing in one such scene, the alcove scene where Susanne comforts a weeping Karen, von Trier and the actress "spoke for a long time about her childhood and all sorts of things, and a little therapist was born in me" (Journal Intime 38). With what seems like scant concern for the actress's well-being, or apparently for much beyond the immediate authenticity of performance which such an emotional release would provide, he found Hassing's resulting mad tearful outbursts "very exciting," stating that he had "extracted from Susanne exactly what I wanted" (Journal Intime 38) though he did acknowledge that his techniques were "not far from sadism" (Rockwell 71). His treatment of Hassing in The Humiliated, which von Trier himself partly filmed in secret by leaving the camera rolling when he put it down behind a chair, are shockingly cruel, brutal and personal and suggestive of a very close relationship turned sour. He reduces her to tears, insulting her for her incapacity to produce the desired performance. He also calls her a "bitch" and essentially accuses her of manufacturing her illness (which sent her to hospital) so as to get out of that day's difficult shoot.

In order to "extract" a sufficiently intense and genuine performance from Karen in the final scene, which von Trier calls the "main moment of the film" (Rockwell 71), von Trier used another trick to open Jorgensen's emotional well-springs. The actress's own young son had been severely ill during the shooting of the film. To tap into her maternal emotions, he unexpectedly slipped a photograph of a baby into the scene and shot an unscripted scene where Karen looked at the photograph. Jorgensen was quickly reduced to tears, prompting a similar response by Hassing in the consolation scene that followed: "[Hassing] sobbed for half an hour and it was fantastic," as von Trier happily noted in his journal (59).

In his "search for the truth" von Trier is uncompromising. The moral acceptability of his working methods, in particular his psychological dredging tactics, is sometimes questionable, and von Trier has been strongly criticised for the cruelty of his approach. Bjork, whom he was to direct in Dancer in the Dark the year after The Idiots, was traumatised by the process. "Acting is extreme cruelty, or this acting was," she said on an American chat show. She condemned von Trier as unnecessarily sadistic: "I think creativity doesn't have to be cruel to be good. I think it's a sign of impotency if you think you have to add cruelty to your work for it to be considered art. I think if you are confident in your art, you would just nurture it with positive energy" (Rockwell 55). Neither Jorgensen nor Hassing has objected (publicly, anyway) to von Trier's treatment of them during the shooting of The Idiots, a process which clearly demanded that actresses dug deeply into themselves in order to make the film work, and according to Rockwell von Trier himself believes that "far from wallowing in new levels of depraved cruelty, he has evolved from antagonism to complicity with his actresses" (65).

But there is another level of nakedness, of exposedness, to this deceptively simple text which we need to consider both in the face of the allegations of cruelty and misogyny levelled against him, and more importantly, here, in terms of his realist approach. Von Trier made the actors bare their bodies and their souls for his Dogme film, but he subjected himself to the same treatment. He kept an "intimate journal" during the making of the The Idiots, which he then published with the screenplay, and he allowed Jesper Jargil to document the entire process in his video documentary, The Humiliated. The Idiots should, as Jerslev rightly points out, not be considered as a text on its own but as a project consisting of a number of connected texts, namely the Dogme manifesto, the Idiots script, The Idiots film, von Trier's Intimate Journal, and The Humiliated. Seen in this light it becomes a kind of uber-mock-documentary project consisting of various fictional semi-fictional and purportedly factual texts, which further confuses the distinction between truth and fiction in The Idiots itself.

Jane Roscoe suggests that "Trier's film The Idiots ... offers a tenuous link to mockdocumentary in its use of interviews with fictional characters" (92-3), but the "link" is arguably more complex (and less tenuous) than that. The Idiots uses many techniques typical of the mock-documentary. The Dogme rules, which advocate a stripped-down style, natural settings and the principle that the camera should follow the action and not vice versa, automatically make for a documentary aesthetic, and this is certainly the case in The Idiots. Although The Humiliated exists as a separate documentary on the subject of The Idiots, the "making of" the film is also documented within The Idiots itself, since camera and sound equipment are featured in several scenes. In addition to this, the fictional narrative is framed by a (mock) documentary one, which reinforces the apparent realness of the text and further confuses the boundaries between documentary and fiction. There are several devices which contribute to creating this effect. The structure of the film as a whole owes more to documentary than to conventional fiction film's narrative structure, and there is no grand narrative here. The "moment" is privileged over the whole, the narrative is episodic, and the interviews punctuate and comment on the "fictional" scenes. (9)

Von Trier includes himself in the film, an increasingly common strategy in documentary films which reinforces the sense of authenticity and amounts to a "showing of the cards," however illusory that transparency might in fact be. As Stella Bruzzi writes, this "recently prevalent acknowledgment of the filmmaker's presence" is a means of "accessing the personal and the everyday" (96). The fact that von Trier is asking the interview questions in the most obviously "documentary" section of the film posits him as a documentary filmmaker capturing what he sees rather than the auteur and mastermind behind what the director himself has called Trier's "puppet theatre" (Journal Intime 26), and cleverly absolves him of the crime of auteurism.

Like many mock-documentaries, and in particular those which fall into what Roscoe calls the deconstruction category, The Idiots appears to be a film about one subject when in fact it is its own main subject (Roscoe 72). It is a mock-documentary not about a group of people spassing in a country house but about the process of Dogme film making itself, and more specifically about von Trier's interpretation of Dogme and his film making process. It is a film which experiments with developing a new film language to talk about film language and to question the Hollywood film language that we have come to accept.

It is hard to imagine a film which could so thoroughly bring to life what von Trier calls the "pure theory" (Bjorkman "Naked Miracles" 13) of the Dogme manifesto, and interrogate it simultaneously. The Idiots, like many mock documentaries, is highly reflexive and deconstructive, so that along with von Trier's diary and The Humiliated, the process of interpreting, applying and testing the limitations of Dogme is exhaustively (and, it appears, exhaustingly) documented. (10) Rather than revealing the private thoughts of the housemates (as is the case in Big Brother) it is von Trier himself who is revealed. Through publishing these texts, he has exposed himself to our scrutiny, just as he has exposed himself to the scrutiny of the film "academy" through the publication of the manifesto in the first place.

In addition to the diary, the documentary and the camerawork, all of which help him to "put [himself] into the frame and find out what's inside, what's in the middle" (Jerslev 49) von Trier places himself literally within the film as the (off-screen) interviewer and "in spirit" as a fictional character, the arrogant and controlling Stoffer, who very obviously functions as his "representative" in the narrative. "The similarity between me and Stoffer in the film is becoming more and more glaring and grotesque" wrote von Trier in his journal, "aside from the fact that Stoffer's infantilism is nowhere near mine" (56). This facilitates a process of auto-deconstruction within The Idiots, allowing him to question and criticise his own approach as a director, as well as exposing himself to further criticism from his audience. It's one of several risky strategies which led von Trier to moments of extreme self-doubt and insecurity. "Who," wonders Rockwell, "is being humiliated in The Idiots as documented in The Humiliated? Critics ... apparently think it's actresses like Jorgensen and Hassing. Karen might think it's the idiots embarrassing themselves with their cruel and childish games. Von Trier seems to think it's himself" (Rockwell 63). Von Trier lays himself open in his journal, confessing his initial infatuations with Hassing which later turn to bitterness and hatred. On numerous occasions he admits to feelings of jealous]6 anger, loneliness and paranoia, sensing his growing separation from the actors and his fall-out with Hassing in particular which conspire to make him feel "unloved" (56). Towards the end of the shoot he is desperate to get away from the actors, miserably convinced that "one is 195 per cent alone in one's tiny little world, ridiculous and humiliating" (56).

Von Trier invites us to judge. He exposes himself, his Dogme, his diary and his actors.., and finally he exposes us. The largely bourgeois art-cinema-going audience is constantly teased by images of themselves on screen: the restaurant patrons disturbed by the idiots' intrusion, the Rockwool factory manager, the neighbours emotionally bludgeoned into buying ugly Christmas ornaments made by the idiots.... Through our reactions to our "representatives" we are forced to question our own stance on the idiots' project, and to confront our moral squeamishness about the taboo-breaking scenes (the encounter with the people with Down's syndrome and the graphic gang bang) in particular. Within the general ambit of the Dogme philosophy, the intention is to force the audience to consider their own attitudes and morals as individuals and as cinema-goers. Nothing and no one escapes inspection in the harsh light of von Trier's laboratory, least of all the director himself. The fact that von Trier is there too, wriggling naked on a pin of his own making for the viewer and the reader to examine, must at least in part exonerate him for his pitiless treatment of the other willing actors / idiots in his grand experiment.

Through the film's storyline, the criticism of Stoffer/von Trier becomes all the more apparent, and two scenes in particular are responsible for engendering a sense of doubt and even contempt for him and his ways. Rather than characterising Josephine's father as a tyrannical patriarch, he is suave and devastatingly cool. Next to him, Stoffer cuts a weak and petulant figure, enthroned in his wheelchair, cut dead by the father when he tries to explain the group's exploits. Shot from the far end of the table and from a high angle his stature is further diminished. "Maybe you've heard of our group?" he asks with apparently uncharacteristic timidity. "No," says Josephine's father decisively. "What do you think of us?" Stoffer then asks, to which the father replies "I couldn't care less." So much for "epater les bourgeois" and "tuer le papa". It is a subtle and intriguing bit of casting by von Trier, who once again does not pull his punches when the blows are directed at himself, or at the aspects of himself which he considers less positive. But it is the scene with Stoffer and his uncle Svend which delivers the most devastating blows, despite the fact that Stoffer gets the comic upper hand. From the moment Axel announces Svend's arrival Stoffer becomes a pantomime of well-behaved normalcy. "Were they spassing?" he asks anxiously about the "idiots" that have greeted his uncle. He has no qualms about sending these same "idiots" to spass in front of their own family and colleagues later in his experiment. Stoffer, entirely unlike von Trier in this instance, is not expected to prove his own idiot credentials in front of someone who matters. Uncle Svend has come to check how far his nephew has got with selling his house, and it is the first time we are informed that the commune in which the idiots are staying in fact belongs to a member of Stoffer's (presumably well-off) family. Stoffer's claim that the idiots are all "craftsmen" of various sorts is amusing, but his anxiety about the spassing and his soapy, unctuous tones once he's alone with his uncle give him away as hopelessly bourgeois. Significantly, von Trier lives in Sollerod, the same middle-class neighbourhood whose residents he satirises so sharply here. Through his criticism of Stoffer and his self-exposure on every level, von Trier escapes the double standards which Stoffer displays.

The closure of the film constitutes both the failure and the triumph of the Dogme/ idiots project and the search for the genuine/ inner-idiot. Whereas the penultimate scene shows the failure of a political and social experiment, the final scene provides a vindication of exactly that idea. Karen is "the real thing" that Stoffer hoped would be revealed through his spassing, just as this scene (and Jorgensen and Hassing's performances in it) are a triumph of Dogme filmmaking at the end of a film which has, implicitly at least, been deeply critical about the project. "For all their rational anti-rationalism," writes Rockwell, "they are redeemed only by the pure feeling of Karen" (38), and it is this "pure feeling" which von Trier seems to hold up as the holy grail he has been searching for in his quest for the genuine. Karen has been critical of the spassing from the start. "Some people are really sick. So how can you defend playing the idiot?" she asks Stoffer, who simply replies "You can't." She voices the audience's misgivings about the group's antics, yet she is the only one who can spass when it really matters. But although we may side with her we don't actually want to be Karen. There's something so damaged about her that we are discouraged from coming too close, and we must watch from a distance, transfixed by her abjection. Even her triumph comes only through abasement, perhaps itself a metaphor for her working process with von Trier.

For all the criticism of his methods, if von Trier's aim was to find "the genuine" The Idiots is a coup for this scene alone. This ending is derived from the ending of a childhood fairytale, "Golden Heart," which was the genesis for Breaking the Waves and for The Idiots and Dancer in the Dark, the other two films in what has variously been called his "Golden Heart" or his "Good Woman Trilogy." Von Trier keeps coming back to the final image in "Golden Heart" as if it, to him, contains some essential truth in its purity. The story, significantly one which von Trier's father detested for its sentimentalism, is about a little girl who goes into the woods with pieces of bread and other things in her pocket. By the end of the story, after she's passed through the woods, she stands "naked and without anything" but certain that she'll "be alright after all" (Jerslev 61-2). Karen, naked but redeemed and immaculate, is an adult, realist take on this fairytale heroine, whose extreme piety and martyrdom inspired von Trier. It exposes vulnerability in the otherwise cynical Von Trier and indicates that for all his doubts about himself and the Dogme project, his faith in the naked truth remains. (11) Von Trier told Peter Ovig Knudsen that his films "have become highly moral recently.... The moral is that you can practise the technique--the Dogma technique or the idiot technique--from now to kingdom come without anything coming out of it unless you have a profound, passionate desire and need to do so. Karen discovers that she needs the technique, and therefore it changes her life" (Rockwell 73). She is the only character with a genuine need to find her inner idiot and who is not, like the other characters, in it for fun, for sex or for their research. In a film where the characters are already more flayed than naked, the final scene when Karen returns home to "spass" is almost unbearable to watch. New York Times critic A.O. Scott felt that this scene "descends to a truly contemptible emotional brutality" (Rockwell 57), and certainly although Karen triumphs in her ability to spass, it is an excruciating victory for Karen and for Bodil Jorgensen, whose agonisingly convincing acting meant the success of this risky make or break final scene for von Trier. The scene, writes Rockwell, "sweeps up the viewer ... it validates an aesthetic, it makes one fearful how any actor could be so emotionally exposed and how any director could surgically peel back her and our normal human defences to reveal such agonised depths" (5).


However problematic his methods, the success of von Trier's realism rests principally on the combination of real emotion accessed by the actress and channelled into her fictional character, and the impression of reality created by the Dogme style. As Rockwell writes, "... beneath all the Euro-conceits of The Idiots, lies emotion of the most primal sort, and Dogma techniques--the fluid camera movements, the improvisational acting, the close-ups, the cinema verite crudeness of the camerawork, the illusion or actuality of things on the screen being 'real'" and the absence of music "all contribute to that emotion" (54).

Jerslev makes a compelling argument that the realism of The Idiots is premised upon the creation of a sense of presence. Further, she writes that "... what is really interesting about The Idiots is that the film's highly reflexive discourse negates the distance usually built into reflexivity. Instead, distance is replaced by immediate transmissions of affect" (48). But although the choice of the mock-documentary form and the rough, unmediated aesthetic style of the piece do indeed give this impression of immediacy, the sense of presence created in The Idiots remains voyeuristic and distanced rather than emotionally engaged. Despite the rawness and realism of the performances, we are not "swept up" by the emotions on screen due to von Trier's deliberate anti-illusionist tactics. Von Trier told Stig Bjorkman that Brecht was a "household god" when he was growing up ("Our Town" 25), and although von Trier has rebelled against many of the childhood "gods" of his freewheeling parents (including through his conversion to Catholicism), the influence of Brecht's verfremdung (or "distancing") technique on The Idiots is clear. If von Trier is to get his larger "political" agenda across, he must necessarily distance us from the intense drama on the screen, however painful-seeming the emotions we are witnessing. It is an approach he had already used in Breaking the Waves, where he specifically adopted a very raw, documentary style to counteract the melodrama of the story, which he believed would otherwise be intolerable: "I felt it important to give [Breaking the Waves] as realistic a form as possible" von Trier told Stig Bjorkman. "One normally chooses a style for a film in order to highlight a story. We've done exactly the opposite. We've chosen a style that works against the story, which gives it the least opportunity to highlight itself" ("Naked Miracles" 12).

The same could be said of The Idiots. It is a complex realism, where we are simultaneously encouraged to believe what we are seeing and to stand back and consider it cerebrally. The style, the performers, the script, the director and finally the construction of the text itself are bared for our scrutiny, but there are also numerous strategies which are used to distance us from the action and which encourage reflection on the "real" issues that are thus raised. These detach us from the psychological realism of the performance and prevent us from indulging in an emotional catharsis which might allow us to evade the film's intellectual message.

The episodic structure and the documentary "interruptions" in the form of the interview complement the "visible" editing of both sound and image. Where the seamlessness of classic Hollywood films hides its construction and "naturalises" the ideology it conveys, The Idiots invites and provokes argument through a style that jars us out of our complacency. It makes us consider the implications not just of the action on screen but also of the way in which film communicates, the language itself. From the very start, von Trier begins the assault. For the first few shots we are introduced to Karen. We naturally presume that she is our protagonist and, since we are about to spend an hour and a half focusing on her and her world, we start on a process of engagement. We see her on a carriage in a park, lulled by the sentimental music we assume is being played off-screen, but a split second later we are thrown into a new setting and the music is simply amputated. We are, for the first time, caught out just as we are tempted to settle into the diegesis and forced to be wary and to watch more actively. In the few minutes that follow, this sense of wariness is compounded by our discovery that the idiots are only acting and that we (like Karen and the other rather more contemptible diners) have been tricked. When Stoffer and Hendrik burst out laughing it feels as though their laughter is directed at us, and we distance ourselves to avoid being "poked fun" at again: it is our first warning not to watch passively. In several scenes the camera is caught in the shot, and once the interviews intrude into the story-world after this scene, yon Trier has introduced the last of the "big guns" in his anti-illusion arsenal.

The nine interview sequences are the most obvious detachment device. They were "completely improvised" and "the actors answer for their characters and at the same time they defend their characters" (Bjorkman Trier on Von Trier 213-4). Von Trier believes that the "breaks caused by the interviews have a kind of distancing effect. But they're also an affirmation. This whole idea of a few people running round playing at being idiots gained a whole other significance because of the interviews. If the members of the cast could sit down afterwards and talk about their experiences, then it must have meant something to them. And that validates the interviews, as well as giving impetus to the plot and the film as a whole" (Bjorkman Trieron Von Trier 214). These interludes, be they semi-documentary or simply improvised mock-documentary, make us reflect on what we are seeing and simultaneously reinforce the overall impression of authenticity. They are intrusions which, like the sudden appearance of a camera in shot, foreground the construction of the story world but simultaneously attest to its actually having happened.

The humour in The Idiots has a similar function in that it also serves to detach us from the emotional drama. Comedy, rather than tearful catharsis, allows us to let off some emotional steam while remaining intellectually engaged: without such comic moments the purity of the film's ending would be lost. In an interview in 1996, before he began work on The Idiots, von Trier told Stig Bjorkman "[y]ou could say that when you introduce humour into your work you also step back a little from it. You create a distance. Here [in Breaking the Waves] I didn't want to distance myself from the strong emotions that the story and its characters contain" ("Naked Miracles" 14). The opposite is true in The Idiots, where he is determined to force us to reflect on what we see. "This is authenticity in the guise of comedy," von Trier claimed shortly after completing the film, "and comedy isn't really something you associate with authenticity" (Bjorkman Trier on Von Trier 217). Numerous very funny moments in this film, notably the hilarious scene in the Rockwool factory carpark, help to break the "spell" of the more intense dramatic scenes and serve to increase the sense of authenticity precisely because they invite us to consider the action from a distance. The rough, improvised nature of the comic scenes increases the impression of candour and spontaneity, albeit part of von Trier's cunning illusion of non-illusion.

There are also less obvious ways in which this distancing is effected throughout the film. We frequently see characters, Karen in particular, in close-up, but the presence of the intruding handheld camera is evident and our viewpoint remains voyeuristic. In another Dogme film, Kira's Reason: A Love Story (Ole Christian Madsen, 2001), which interestingly is also about a woman who has lost a child, the extreme close-up is used to encourage a profound sense of emotional identification with the viewer. In The Idiots, however, von Trier uses such close-ups for the opposite effect. These shots encourage the viewer to scrutinise, uncomfortably, without engaging emotionally. Both uses of the extreme close-up (in Kira's Reason and in The Idiots) showcase the performance as "authentic," but while one maybe engrossed and horrified by what one sees in The Idiots, one does not identify, even with Karen. (12)

Big close-ups render the actresses in particular enormously vulnerable to our gaze, and in several of the close-ups here "it's as if the barriers of actorly craft have fallen away, as if something almost unbearably real is confronting you unmediated from the screen," (Rockwell 53), but this confrontation, while allowing us to get disturbingly close as voyeurs, disallows any lasting emotional intimacy. It is an intriguing combination: the nakedness and authenticity of the performance, coupled with a distancing camera style which belongs to another more cerebral and deconstructive form of realism. (13)

Significantly, Karen is shot in semiprofile in the restaurant scene at the start of the film, setting a trend which continues throughout, including in her most harrowing scenes. In the early scene where Karen weeps with Susanne because she has "no right to be this happy" the profile becomes so extreme that we are almost seeing the back of her head as she looks out of the window. This is a standard realist ploy to suggest that action is not staged or composed, and is in keeping with the Dogme assertion that the camera must follow the performance rather than the performers playing to camera. But it also increases the distance between the performer and the audience and reinforces a sense of voyeurism: we are eavesdroppers, we are not included. Conversations are frequently shot as two-shots with swish pans cutting between the characters. This allows for more "flow" in the performance and is considered a more realist style than the classic shot reverse-shot technique (and more appropriate for this mock-documentary) since it is less obviously constructed. The actresses play to each other rather than to camera, in an apparently unstaged visual style. In The Idiots this also makes for many profile shots in scenes where full-face shots may have "let us in" more to the emotional action.

Linked to this is the use of oblique eyelines. Karen's eyes are always elsewhere, which is an entirely plausible characteristic for someone such as she, but which also ensures that we are held at bay. In the scene where Karen takes leave of the idiots she seems actively to be trying to avoid the intruding camera, to shut it (and us) out. Von Trier's camera may have pinned her into a close-up against the wall, but still she remains impenetrable. She turns her head from side to side as she addresses each of her new-found friends in turn, giving only a series of profiles, eyes averted. Since there are no clear point-of-view shots, we are also denied the extra insight of seeing things as she does. We are permitted, throughout the film, to watch her at her most emotionally naked, but watching is as far as it goes. While there is certainly an impression of "immediate transmissions of affect" onto the screen, we remain voyeurs, shut out and helpless to intervene: we are invited to watch people, rather than become them. Von Trier is unwilling "to let us off the hook without paying for our psychological urge to look," (Bainbridge 97), and he intentionally maximises our voyeuristic discomfort.

Karen is also the only character who does not feature in the interviews, so while the other characters address the camera directly, staring straight at us, we are once again denied this insight into Karen and she remains an enigma. This adds impact to the final scene where we finally discover the reason for her emotional distress. Once she has spassed we are treated to the clearest, best-lit close-up of her in the whole film. Her face is almost fully to the camera, her eyeline far more acute, and her eyes well-lit and "readable" as she smiles at Susanne, radiant and transcendent. She has found her "truth," her "inner idiot," and we are momentarily allowed a bit closer to her to share her triumph.

Von Trier has developed a complex form of realism in The Idiots. In keeping with the Dogme manifesto, which advocates a "pared-down cinematic sensibility premised on technological restrictions" (Bainbridge 86), he shoots in a minimalist style which mimics the documentary and suggests a lack of mediation and manipulation. He constructs the film as a mock-documentary, framing the realistically episodic narrative with a series of improvised interviews with the actors.

But perhaps his most impressive achievement here is the way in which he has combined two apparently contradictory realisms, which one could broadly term emotional and intellectual. Von Trier uses amateur "therapy" techniques and improvisation to add authenticity to the performances, which are critical for the film's emotional realism. Having convinced his audience, he proceeds to disengage and distance them emotionally using various detachment techniques, thereby promoting a more "intellectual" consideration of the film. It is the ultimate Dogme film, (14) which questions, criticises and deconstructs the theory of the manifesto even as it constructs a text which is perfectly in accordance with its spirit and rules. As Tim Walters writes, von Trier "has made a film in this way that is simultaneously about making a film in this way, and most importantly about why he has chosen to do so" (42).

It is also the ultimate naked film. Common to both forms of realism is that they involve a baring process, the "surgical peeling back" of layers that Rockwell speaks of (5), which von Trier pursues with such determination that it verges at times on sadism and, I would argue, masochism. The style and aesthetic, the script, the actors, the director and even the filmmaking process are stripped and left with nothing to hide behind. We, the voyeuristic audience, watch engrossed as von Trier takes this ungainly and uncomfortable striptease to another level. He insists on probing beneath the skin, culminating in an excruciating nakedness in the final scene where the flesh itself seems torn away to reveal the pure, beating heart of the film. For von Trier, this is the truth that he has been looking for. It is his Golden Heart.

Works Cited

Bainbridge, Caroline. The Cinema of Lars von Trier: Authenticity and Artifice. London and New York: Wallflower, 2007

Bjorkman, Stig. "Naked Miracles." Sight and Sound 6.10 (1996): 10-14.

--. Trier on Von Trier. London: Faber and Faber, 2003.

--. "Our Town." Sight and Sound 14.2 (2004): 24-27.

Bruzzi, Stella. New Documentary: A Critical Introduction. London: Routledge, 2000.

Christensen, Ove. "Spastic Aesthetics-The Idiots." p.o.v. 10. December 2000. 19 June section_4/artc7A.html

Church, David. Werner Herzog. Senses of Cinema. 2006.4 August 2008. http:// directors/06/herzog.html

Conrich, Ian. and Estella Tincknell. "Film Purity, the Neo-Bazinian Ideal, and Humanism in Dogma 95." p.o.v. 10. December 2000.25 October 2007. http:// artc7A.html.

Crago, Morwenna. "Just a spoonful of grainy footage: Creating 'Realism and Authenticity Big Brother Style." Metro Magazine 133 (2002): 108-115.

Francke, Lizzie. "Breaking the Waves." Sight and Sound 6.10 (1996): 36-37.

Hjort, Mette. and Scott MacKenzie. Purity and Provocation; Dogma 95. London: British Film Institute, 2003.

Jensen, Jan Oxholm and Jacob Isak Nielsen. "The Ultimate Dogme Film." p.o.v. 10. December 2000. 4 August 2008. http:// html.

Jerslev, Anne. Realism and 'Reality' in the Media. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, University of Copenhagen, 2002.

Knudsen, Peter Ovig. "The Man Who Would Give Up Control." (n.d.) 4 August 2008. The official Dogme 95 website http:// trier_interview.htm.

Nichols, Bill. Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1991.

The Official Dogme 95 website. 1995. 11 August 2008 Nimbus Film & Zentropa Entertainment.

Rockwell, John. The Idiots. London: British Film Institute, 2003.

Roscoe, Jane and Craig Hight. Faking It: Mock-Documentary and the Subversion of Factuality. Manchester and New York: Manchester UP, 2001.

Rouch, Jean. "The Camera and the Man." Principles of Visual Anthropology. Ed. Paul Hockings. New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 1995.79-98.

Stevenson, Jack. Lars Von Trier. London: British Film Institute, 2002.

Thomsen, Bodil Marie "Idiocy, Foolishness and Spastic Jesting." p.o.v.10. December 2000.1June2009. Issue_10/section_2/artc4A.html

Von Trier, Lars. Journal Intime. Paris: Atelier Alpha Bleue, 1998.

Walters, Tim. "Reconsidering The Idiots: Dogme95, Lars von Trier; and the Cinema of Subversion?" Velvet Light Trap 53 (2004): 40-54.


Big Brother dir. Various. USA., 2000-2008.

Breaking the Waves dir. Lars von Trier. Denmark, Sweden, France, Netherlands, Norway, Iceland, 1996.

Element of Crime dir. Lars von Trier. Denmark 1984.

Epidemic dir. Lars von Trier. Denmark, 1986.

Europa dir. Lars von Trier. Denmark, 1991. Heart of Glass dir. Werner Herzog. West Germany, 1976.

Idiots, The dir. Lars von Trier. Denmark, Sweden, France, Netherlands, Italy, 1998.

Intimacy dir. Patrice Chereau. France, UK, Germany, Spain, 2001.

Kira's Reason: A Love Story dir. Ole Christian Madsen. Denmark, 2001.

The Humiliated dir. Jesper Jargil. Denmark, 1998.


(1) According to an account in Jack Stevenson's Lars von Trier (102).

(2) The full Dogme manifesto was made available online on the official Dogme website at

(3) Ove Christensen remarks on the "unfocussed" nature of the narrative in The Idiots and its lack of narrative drive (n.p.).

(4) All translations from the French version of Von Trier's Intimate Journal (Journal Intime) are my own, unless otherwise stated.

(5) Or perhaps it is the actors battling for von Trier's approval of their performance?

(6) Bodil Marie Thomsen suggests that Karen is "an idiot in this word's etymological (Greek) definition: a private person" (n.p.).

(7) It must be noted that Von Trier regarded the writing of the journal itself as a "kind of authorial therapy" which came out of the "heightened emotional state which was the technique itself of the film" (5).

(8) See Rockwell, 65. Von Trier is not the first director to use such extreme methods to get the performances he required. When filming Heart Of Glass (1976), Werner Herzog made all but one of the cast members work in a state of hypnotic trance to "create a sort of 'waking dream' quality for the film's action" where the "characters drift about almost aimlessly, their actions emerging abruptly from beneath an eerily emotionless stupor" (Church, n.p.).

(9) Caroline Bainbridge asserts that, rather than being an example of mockumentary in the style of This Is Spinal Tap (Rob Reiner, 1984), it is "fiction in the guise of what Nichols has defined as a performative mode of documentary" (94). While I agree that the mock-documentary approach differs from that of This Is Spinal Tap, which mimics the rock documentary and is shot in a mock-observational documentary style with concert footage and interviews, there is nothing except the difficulty of the challenge to keep filmmakers from using the performative rather than the observational documentary style for a mock-documentary.

(10) When I made enquiries about how to get hold of the elusive and out-of-print journal, von Trier's assistant at Zentropa, Janus Schumaker, told me that "Lars really regretted publishing" such intimate thoughts and would prefer me not to use the diary anyway. Naturally that made me intensify my search until I finally found a copy.

(11) There is something of the immaculate virgin in von Trier's Good Women, which perhaps provides a clue to von Trier's decision to embrace Catholicism, apart from simply as a means of irritating his determinedly agnostic, communist parents. Bodil Marie Thomsen also notes that Von Trier's religious and aesthetic pathos flies in the face of the "disdain in the name of high-modernism" that has existed in relation to such pathos throughout the twentieth century.

(12) Bainbridge makes the very interesting observation that the camerawork changes in the closing scenes to anticipate rather than follow the action, for instance when Anders slaps Karen, which rips us violently into a different viewing mode, reminding us that "we are watching when we seemingly should not be" and forcing us "into the uncomfortable position of the voyeur" (95, 96).

(13) Ove Christensen remarks on this contradiction. He points out that the rough, unconventional camerawork repels the viewer and creates "a distance or disconnection between the spectator and the film," rejecting direct communication and making it in one sense a very abstract and cool film. "Simultaneously and contradictorily," Christensen goes on to say, "The Idiots draws the spectator into the film's universe, making it a very intense (and warm) film to watch" particularly through the use of the home video style which "minimises the distance between the story and the telling of the story in that the position of the enunciation becomes, if not equivalent to, then very close to that of the spectator" (n.p.).

(14) Clearly I am not alone in thinking this, since I have subsequently discovered and read an article on The Idiots by Jan Jensen and Jakob Nielsen entitled "The Ultimate Dogma Film," published in p.o.v as part of a special edition on Dogme in December 2000. The article is an interview with actors Jens Albinus and Louise Hassing.
Breaking the Waves borrows a cinema
   verite style associated as much
   with urgently-paced television dramas
   such as ER as the social realist films of
   Ken Loach. But Robby Muller's wildly
   mobile camera is more a distraught eye
   than that of the fly-on-the-wall film. It
   forever circles the players, scrutinising
   their most intimate moments--for example
   in the touching scene when Bess
   shyly explores Jan's body or the more
   harrowing observation of her howling
   grief--as if wishing to pierce skin and
   burrow to the loners' souls. The camera
   anxiously seeks the truth, reminding the
   audiences of the power of the close-up
   as it brushes past Bess' and Jan's faces,
   but it can never get as close as it would
   like and the image breaks up. Thus von
   Trier measures the distance between film
   and the reality that he is attempting to
   portray. The camera, which seems to be
   alive as it pulls audiences in, also distracts
   and unbalances them. (36)

Anchored in humanity, Breaking the
   Waves is a film that rolls with the emotions,
   that shudders with the frustration
   of not being able to do more than simply
   observe. At the same time it also repels
   us with just how much it can reveal. The
   close scrutiny of Bess' disintegration is
   at times so painfully raw and shocking
   that sometimes one doesn't want to look
   anymore--especially as Emily Watson's
   performance, in which she seems to
   empty herself out onto the screen, is so
   believable. (36)
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